A woman looks out from her balcony as electricity and telephone cables hang close to an apartment in Yangon, Burma. Pic: AP.

By Mark Inkey

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has this month approved a $60 million loan to improve Burma’s electricity supply and a $12 million grant to help develop rural areas.

On December 6 ADB approved a $60 million loan to improve the electricity supply to 480,000 households in Rangoon, Mandalay, Sagaing and Magway divisions.

Electricity supply in Burma is notoriously poor and unevenly spread. Nationally less than a third (28 percent) of households are electrified, a figure that falls to only one in five households (21 percent) outside the four largest towns. Over two thirds (68 percent) of the electricity consumed in the country goes to Rangoon and Mandalay.

Despite this, less than three quarters (72 percent) of households in Rangoon have electricity and power outages are so frequent that many businesses need noisy, dirty electricity generators to ensure an uninterrupted supply of electricity.

(MORE: $140m World Bank loan to boost Burma electricity supply)

Blackouts are more frequent in the dry season because 76 percent of the country’s electricity comes from hydropower and many hydropower plants cannot operate to their full capacity during the drier months because of a lack of water.

Electricity supply problems are compounded by a poor electrical grid with a limited capacity which is so inefficient that it wastes nearly a fifth (18.2 percent) of the power it is supplied with.

Jong-Inn Kim, lead energy specialist in the ADB’s Southeast Asia Department, said: “Access to electricity is crucial to development. Repairing and strengthening existing electricity infrastructure will help reduce system losses, use resources more efficiently and connect more people more quickly.”

Working with the Ministry of Electric Power (MOEP) ADB will target areas in the regions of Rangoon, Mandalay, Sagaing and Magway.

Their priorities will be to improve and upgrade electricity supply especially in the regions of Rangoon and Mandalay. This will be done by generating more electricity, improving the grid and upgrading and building new sub stations with the aim of connecting many more households to an efficient electrical supply, particularly in rural areas.

ADB will also supply a power advisor to MOEP, experts in electrical infrastructure, financial management advice and help in developing safeguards and safety procedures. It will also provide assistance to set up a regulatory authority to enhance transparency and attract private sector participation.

On December 20 ADB also approved a $12 million grant to help improve rural livelihoods and incomes for at least 700,000 people in four areas, the Ayeyawady Delta, the Central Dry Zone, Taninthayi Region, and the Shan State Plateau.

Some of these regions have double the poverty rates of urban areas and are typified by poor infrastructure and no employment options except subsistence farming.

The poor infrastructure increases the cost of getting goods to markets and eats into farmers’ meager profits. It also limits their access to social and technical services.

The ADB project aims to improve rural infrastructure by employing villagers to build small local level infrastructure projects such as roads, paths, bridges, irrigation, drainage and drinking water systems. They will also work on social infrastructure projects such as health centres and schools.

Villagers will receive English lessons so that they can take advantage of the expected boom in tourism. Agricultural training will be given to increase yields and diversification of farming into areas such as shrimp and fish farming and the production of cash crops such as chilli and garlic.

Support will also be provided for small scale and cottage industries such as handicrafts and lacquerware.

This is expected to lead to a 50 percent increase in villagers’ income by 2020.

ADB wants this to be a community led grassroots project. Pavit Ramachandran, Senior Environment Specialist in ADB’s Southeast Asia Department said: “Crucially, the villagers themselves will be the ones who will identify project activities, ensuring the full benefits reach the grassroots level.”

There will also be a special focus on women to ensure that they make up at least 40 percent of the project’s participants.